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What is it Like to Teach Black Students?

Date: 2010-03-08, 10:01PM PST

Reply to: see below

What is it Like to Teach Black Students?

[Black students]

(The following is a an open letter from a White School teacher who had the experience of teaching Black youth.)

Until recently I taught at a predominantly black high school in a southeastern state.

The mainstream press gives a hint of what conditions are like in black schools, but only a hint. Expressions journalists use like “chaotic” or “poor learning environment” or “lack of discipline” do not capture what really happens. There is nothing like the day-to-day experience of teaching black children and that is what I will try to convey.

One of the most immediately striking things about my students was that they were loud. They had little conception of ordinary decorum. It was not unusual for five students to be screaming at me at once.

It did no good to try to quiet them and white women were particularly inept at trying. I sat in on one woman’s class as she begged the children to pipe down. They just yelled louder so their voices would carry over hers.

They seemed to have no conception of waiting for an appropriate time to say something. They would get ideas in their heads and simply had to shout them out. I might be leading a discussion on government and suddenly be interrupted: “We gotta get more Democrats! Clinton, she good!” The student may seem content with that outburst but two minutes later, he would suddenly start yelling again: “Clinton good!”

Anyone who is around young blacks will probably get a constant diet of rap music. Blacks often make up their own jingles, and it was not uncommon for 15 boys to swagger into a classroom, bouncing their shoulders and jiving back.

They were yelling back and forth, rapping 15 different sets of

words in the same harsh, rasping dialect.

The words were almost invariably

a childish form of boasting: “Who got

dem shine rim, who got dem shine shoe,

who got dem shine grill (gold and silver

dental caps)?” The amateur rapper usually

ends with a claim—in the crudest

terms imaginable—that all womankind

is sexually devoted to him. For whatever

reason, my students would often groan

instead of saying a particular word, as in,

“She suck dat aaahhhh (think of a long

grinding groan), she f**k dat aaaahhhh,

she lick dat aaaahhh.”

So many black girls dance in the hall, in the classroom,

on the chairs, next to the chairs, under

the chairs, everywhere. Once I took a

call on my cell phone and had to step

outside of class. I was away about two

minutes but when I got back, the

girls had lined up at the front of the

classroom and were convulsing to the

delight of the boys.

Many black people, especially

women, are enormously fat. Some are

so fat I had to arrange special seating to

accommodate their bulk. I am not saying

there are no fat white students—there

are—but it is a matter of numbers and

attitudes. Many black girls simply do not

care that they are fat. There are plenty

of white anorexics, but I have never met

or heard of a black anorexic.

“Black women be big Mr. Jackson,”

my students would explain.

“Is it okay in the black community to

be a little overweight?” I ask.

Two obese girls in front of

my desk begin to dance, “You know

dem boys lak juicy fruit, Mr. Jackson.”

“Juicy” is a colorful black expression

for the buttocks.

Blacks, on average, are the most directly critical

people I have ever met: “Dat shirt stupid.

Yo’ kid a bastard. Yo’ lips big.” Unlike

whites, who tread gingerly around the

subject of race, they can be brutally to

the point. Once I needed to send a student

to the office to deliver a message. I

asked for volunteers, and suddenly you

would think my classroom was a bastion

of civic engagement. Thirty dark hands

shot into the air. My students loved to

leave the classroom and slack off, even

if just for a few minutes, away from the

eye of white authority. I picked a light-skinned

boy to deliver the message. One

very black student was indignant: “You

pick da half-breed.” And immediately

other blacks take up the cry, and half

a dozen mouths are screaming, “He


For decades, the country has been

lamenting the poor academic performance

of blacks and there is much to

lament. There is no question, however,

that many blacks come to school with a

serious handicap that is not their fault.

At home they have learned a dialect that

is almost a different language. Blacks

not only mispronounce words; their

grammar is often wrong. When a black

wants to ask, “Where is the bathroom?”

he may actually say “Whar da badroom

be?” Grammatically, this is the equivalent

of “Where the bathroom is?” And

this is the way they speak in high school.

Students write the way they speak, so

this is the language that shows up in

written assignments.

It is true that some whites face a

similar handicap. They speak with

what I would call a “country” accent

that is hard to reproduce but results in

sentences such as “I’m gonna gemme

a Coke.” Some of these country whites

had to learn correct pronunciation and

usage. The difference is that most whites

overcome this handicap and learn to

speak correctly; many blacks do not.

Most of the blacks I taught simply

had no interest in academic subjects. I

taught history, and students would often

say they didn’t want to do an assignment

or they didn’t like history because it was

all about white people. Of course, this

was “diversity” history, in which every

cowboy’s black cook got a special page

on how he contributed to winning the

West, but black children still found it

inadequate. So I would throw up my

hands and assign them a project on a

real, historical black person. My favorite

was Marcus Garvey. They had never

heard of him, and I would tell them to

research him, but they never did. They

didn’t care and they didn’t want to do

any work.

Anyone who teaches blacks soon

learns that they have a completely different

view of government from whites.

Once I decided to fill 25 minutes by

having students write about one thing

the government should do to improve

America. I gave this question to three

classes totaling about 100 students,

approximately 80 of whom were black.

My white students came back with

generally “conservative” ideas. “We

need to cut off people who don’t work,”

was the most common suggestion.

Nearly every black gave a variation on

the theme of “We need more government


My students had only the vaguest

notion of who pays for government

services. For them, it was like a magical

piggy bank that never goes empty. One

black girl was exhorting the class on

the need for more social services and I

kept trying to explain that people, real

live people, are taxed for the money to

pay for those services. “Yeah, it come

from whites,” she finally said. “They

stingy anyway.”

“Many black people make over

$50,000 dollars a year and you would

also be taking away from your own

people,” I said.

She had an answer to that: “Dey

half breed.” The class agreed. I let the

subject drop.

Many black girls are perfectly happy

to be welfare queens. On career day, one

girl explained to the class that she was

going to have lots of children and get fat

checks from the government. No one in

the class seemed to have any objection

to this career choice.

Surprising attitudes can come out in

class discussion. We were talking about

the crimes committed in the aftermath of

Hurricane Katrina, and I brought up the

rape of a young girl in the bathroom of

the Superdome. A majority of my students

believed this was a horrible crime

but a few took it lightly. One black boy

spoke up without raising his hand: “Dat

no big deal. They thought they is gonna

die so they figured they have some fun.

Dey jus’ wanna have a fun time; you

know what I’m sayin’?” A few black

heads nodded in agreement.

My department head once asked all

the teachers to get a response from all

students to the following question: “Do

you think it is okay to break the law if it

will benefit you greatly?” By then, I had

been teaching for a while and was not

surprised by answers that left a young,

liberal, white woman colleague aghast.

“Yeah” was the favorite answer. As one

student explained, “Get dat green.”

There is a level of conformity among

blacks that whites would find hard to

believe. They like one kind

of music: rap. They will

vote for one political party:

Democrat. They dance

one way, speak one way,

are loud the same way,

and fail their exams in the

same way. Of course, there

are exceptions but they

are rare.

Whites are different.

Some like country music,

others heavy metal, some

prefer pop, and still others,

God forbid, enjoy rap music. They have

different associations, groups, almost

ideologies. There are jocks, nerds,

preppies, and hunters. Blacks are all—

well—black, and they are quick to let

other blacks know when they deviate

from the norm.

One might object that there are important

group differences among blacks that a white man simply cannot detect. I

have done my best to find them, but so

far as I can tell, they dress the same, talk

the same, think the same. Certainly, they

form rival groups, but the groups are not

different in any discernible way. There

simply are no groups of blacks that are

as distinctly different from each other

as white “nerds,” “hunters,” or “Goths,”

for example.

How the world looks to blacks

One point on which all blacks agree

is that everything is “racis’.” This is

one message of liberalism they have

absorbed completely. Did you do your

homework? “Na, homework racis’.”

Why did you get an F on the test? “Test


I was trying to teach a unit on British

philosophers and the first thing the students

noticed about Bentham, Hobbes,

and Locke was “Dey all white! Where da

black philosophers’?” I tried to explain

there were no blacks in eighteenth century

Britain. You can probably guess

what they said to that: “Dat racis’!”

One student accused me of deliberately

failing him on a test because I

didn’t like black people.

“Do you think I really hate black



“Have I done anything to make you

feel this way? How do you know?”

“You just do.”

“Why do you say that?”

He just smirked, looked out the window,

and sucked air through his teeth.

Perhaps this was a regional thing, but

the blacks often sucked air through their

teeth as a wordless expression of disdain

or hostility.

My students were sometimes unable

to see the world except through the lens

of their own blackness. I had a class

that was host to a German exchange

student. One day he put on a Power Point

presentation with famous German landmarks

as well as his school and family.

From time to time during the presentation,

blacks would scream, “Where da

black folk?!” The exasperated German

tried several times to explain that there

were no black people where he lived in

Germany. The students did not believe

him. I told them Germany is in Europe,

where white people are from, and Africa

is where black people are from. They

insisted that the German student was

racist and deliberately refused to associate

with blacks.

Blacks are keenly interested in

their own racial characteristics. I have

learned, for example, that some blacks

have “good hair.” Good hair is black

parlance for black-white hybrid hair.

Apparently, it is less kinky, easier to

style, and considered more attractive.

Blacks are also proud of light skin.

Imagine two black students shouting

insults across the room. One is dark

but slim; the other light and obese. The

dark one begins the exchange: “You

fat, Ridario!” Ridario smiles, doesn’t deign to look

at his detractor, shakes his head like a

wobbling top, and says, “You wish you

light skinned.”

They could go on like this, repeating

the same insults over and over.

My black students had nothing but

contempt for Hispanic immigrants. They

would vent their feelings so crudely

that our department strongly advised us

never to talk about immigration in class

in case the principal or some outsider

might overhear.

Whites were “racis’,” of course, but

they thought of us at least as Americans.

Not the Mexicans. Blacks have a certain,

not necessarily hostile understanding of

white people. They know how whites

act, and it is clear they believe whites

are smart and are good at organizing

things. At the same time, they probably

suspect whites are just putting on an

act when they talk about equality, as if

it is all a sham that makes it easier for

whites to control blacks. Blacks want a

bigger piece of the American pie. I’m

convinced that if it were up to them

they would give whites a considerably

smaller piece than whites get now, but

they would give us something. They

wouldn’t give Mexicans anything.

What about black boys and white

girls? No one is supposed to

notice this or talk about it but

it is glaringly obvious: Black

boys are obsessed with white

girls. I’ve witnessed the following

drama countless times. A black

boy saunters up to a white

girl. The cocky black dances

around her, not really in a menacing

way. It’s more a shuffle

than a threat. As he bobs and

shuffles he asks, “When you

gonna go wit’ me?”

There are two kinds of reply.

The more confident white

girl gets annoyed, looks away

from the black and shouts, “I don’t wanna

go out with you!” The more demure

girl will look at her feet and mumble

a polite excuse but ultimately say no.

There is only one response from the

black boy: “You racis’.” Many girls—all

too many—actually feel guilty because

they do not want to date blacks. Most

white girls at my school stayed away

from blacks, but a few, particularly the

ones who were addicted to drugs, fell

in with them.

There is something else that is striking

about blacks. They seem to have

no sense of romance, of falling in love.

What brings men and women together is

sex, pure and simple, and there is a crude

openness about this. There are many degenerate

whites, of course, but some of

my white students were capable of real

devotion and tenderness, emotions that

seemed absent from blacks—especially

the boys.

Black schools are violent and the

few whites who are too poor to escape

are caught in the storm. The violence is

astonishing, not so much that it happens,

but the atmosphere in which it happens.

Blacks can be smiling, seemingly perfectly

content with what they are doing,

having a good time, and then, suddenly

start fighting. It’s uncanny. Not long

ago, I was walking through the halls

and a group of black boys were walking

in front of me. All of a sudden they

started fighting with another group in

the hallway.

Blacks are extraordinarily quick to

take offense. Once I accidentally scuffed

a black boy’s white sneaker with my

shoe. He immediately rubbed his body

up against mine and threatened to attack

me. I stepped outside the class and had

a security guard escort the student to

the office. It was unusual for students

to threaten teachers physically this way,

but among themselves, they were quick

to fight for similar reasons.

The real victims are the unfortunate

whites caught in this. They are always

in danger and their educations suffer.

White weaklings are particularly susceptible,

but mostly to petty violence. They

may be slapped or get a couple of kicks

when they are trying to open a bottom

locker. Typically, blacks save the hard,

serious violence for each other.

There was a lot of promiscuous sex

among my students and this led to

violence. Black girls were constantly

fighting over black boys. It was not uncommon

to see two girls literally ripping

each other’s hair out with a police officer

in the middle trying to break up the

fight. The black boy they were fighting

over would be standing by with a smile,

enjoying the show he had created. For

reasons I cannot explain, boys seldom

fought over girls.

Pregnancy was common among the

blacks, though many black girls were

so fat I could not tell the difference. I

don’t know how many girls got abortions,

but when they had the baby they

usually stayed in school and had their

own parents look after the child. The

school did not offer daycare.

Aside from the police officers constantly on campus, security guards are everywhere in

black schools—we had one on every

hall. They also sat in on unruly classes

and escorted students to the office. They

were unarmed but worked closely with

the three city police officers who were

constantly on duty.

There was a lot of drug-dealing at

my school. This was a way to

make a fair amount of money but it

also gave boys power over girls who

wanted drugs. An addicted girl—black

or white—became the plaything of anyone

who could get her drugs.

One of my students was a notorious

drug dealer. Everyone knew it. He was

19 years old and in eleventh grade. Once

he got a score of three out of 100 on a

test. He had been locked up four times

since he was 13.

One day, I asked him, “Why do you

come to school?”

He wouldn’t answer. He just looked

out the window, smiled, and sucked air

through his teeth. His friend Yidarius

ventured an explanation: “He get dat

green and get dem females.”

“What is the green?” I asked. “Money

or dope?” “Both,” said Yidarius with a smile.

A very fat student interrupted from

across the room: “We get dat lunch,” Mr.

Jackson. “We gotta get dat lunch and

brickfuss.” He means the free breakfast

and lunch poor students get every day.

“Nigga, we know’d you be lovin’

brickfuss!” shouts another student.

Some readers may believe that I

have drawn a cruel caricature of black

students. After all, according to official

figures some 85 percent of them graduate.

It would be instructive to know how

many of those scraped by with barely a

C- record. They go from grade to grade

and they finally get their diplomas

because there is so much pressure on

teachers to push them through. It saves

money to move them along, the school

looks good and the teachers look good.

Many of these children should have been

failed but the system would crack under

their weight if they were all held back.

How did my experiences make me

feel about blacks? Ultimately, I lost

sympathy for them. In so many ways

they seem to make their own beds.

There they were in an integrationist’s

fantasy—in the same classroom with

white students, eating the same lunch,

using the same bathrooms, listening to

the same teachers—and yet the blacks

fail while the whites pass.

One tragic outcome among whites

who have been teaching for too long

is that it can engender something close

to hatred. One teacher I knew gave up

fast food—not for health reasons but

because where he lived most fast-food

workers were black. He had enough of

blacks on the job. This was an extreme

example but years of frustration can

take their toll. Many of my white colleagues

with any experience were well

on their way to that state of mind.

There is an unutterable secret among

teachers: Almost all realize that blacks

do not respond to traditional white

instruction. Does that put the lie to environmentalism?

Not at all. It is what

brings about endless, pointless innovation

that is supposed to bring blacks up

to the white level. The solution is more diversity—or put

more generally, the solution is change.

Change is an almost holy word in education,

and you can fail a million times as

long as you keep changing. That is why

liberals keep revamping the curriculum

and the way it is taught. For example,

teachers are told that blacks need hands-on

instruction and more group work.

Teachers are told that blacks are more

vocal and do not learn through reading

and lectures. The implication is that they

have certain traits that lend themselves

to a different kind of teaching.

Whites have learned a certain way for

centuries but it just doesn’t work with

blacks. Of course, this implies racial

differences but if pressed, most liberal

teachers would say different racial

learning styles come from some indefinable

cultural characteristic unique to

blacks. Therefore, schools must change,

America must change. But into what?

How do you turn quantum physics into

hands-on instruction or group work? No

one knows, but we must keep changing

until we find something that works.

Public school has certainly changed

since anyone reading this was a student.

I have a friend who teaches elementary

school and she tells me that every week

the students get a new diversity lesson,

shipped in fresh from some bureaucrat’s

office in Washington or the state

capital. She showed me the materials

for one week: a large poster,

about the size of a forty-two inch

flat-screen television. It shows

an utterly diverse group—I mean

diverse: handicapped, Muslim,

Jewish, effeminate, poor, rich,

brown, slightly brown, yellow,

etc.—sitting at a table, smiling

gaily, accomplishing some undefined

task. The poster comes with

a sheet of questions the teacher is

supposed to ask. One might be: “These

kids sure look different, but they look

happy. Can you tell me which one in

the picture is an American?”

Some eight-year-old, mired in ignorance,

will point to a white child like

himself. “That one.”

The teacher reads from the answer,

conveniently printed along with the

question. “No, Billy, all these children

are Americans. They are just as American

as you.”

This is what happens at predominately white,

middle-class, elementary schools everywhere.

Elementary school teachers love All

of the Colors of the Race, by award-winning

children’s poet Arnold Adoff.

These are some of the lines they read

to the children: “Mama is chocolate …

Daddy is vanilla … Me (sic) is better …

It is a new color. It is a new flavor. For

love. Sometimes blackness seems too

black for me, and whiteness is too sickly

pale; and I wish every one were golden.

Remember: long ago before people

moved and migrated, and mixed and

matched … there was one people: one

color, one race. The colors are flowing

from what was before me to what will

be after. All the colors.”

Teaching as a career

It may come as a surprise after what

I have written, but my experiences have

given me a deep appreciation for teaching

as a career. It offers a stable, middle-class

life but comes with the capacity

to make real differences in the lives of

children. In our modern, atomized world

children often have very little communication

with adults—especially, or even,

with their parents—so there is potential

for a real transaction between pupil and

teacher, disciple and master.

A rewarding relationship can grow

up between an exceptional, interested

student and his teacher. I have stayed in

my classroom with a group of students

discussing ideas and playing chess until

the janitor kicked us out. I was the

old gentleman, imparting my history,

culture, personal loves and triumphs,

defeats and failures to young kinsman.

Sometimes I fancied myself Tyrtaeus,

the Spartan poet, who counseled the

youth to honor and loyalty. I never had

this kind intimacy with a black student,

and I know of no other white teacher

who did.

Teaching can be fun. For a certain

kind of person it is exhilarating to map

out battles on chalkboards, and teach

heroism. It is rewarding to challenge

liberal prejudices, to leave my mark on

these children, but what I aimed for with

my white students I could never achieve

with the blacks.

There is a kind of child whose look

can melt your heart: some working-class

castaway, in and out of foster homes,

often abused, who is nevertheless almost

an angel. Your heart melts for these children,

this refuse of the modern world.

Many white students possess a certain

innocence; their cheeks still blush.

Try as I might, I could not get the

blacks to care one bit about Beethoven

or Sherman’s march to the sea, or

Tyrtaeus, or Oswald Spengler, or even

liberals like John Rawls, or their own

history. They cared about nothing I

tried to teach them. When this goes on

year after year it chokes the soul out

of a teacher, destroys his pathos, and

sends him guiltily searching for The Bell

Curve on the Internet.

Blacks break down the intimacy that

can be achieved in the classroom, and

leave you convinced that that intimacy

is really a form of kinship. Without

intending to, they destroy what is most

beautiful—whether it be your belief in

human equality, your daughter’s innocence,

or even the state of the hallway.

Just last year I read on the

bathroom stall the words “F**k

Whitey.” Not two feet away, on the

same stall, was a small swastika.

The National Council for the Social

Studies, the leading authority on social

science education in the United States,

urges teachers to inculcate such values

as equality of opportunity, individual

property rights, and a democratic form

of government. Even if teachers could

inculcate this milquetoast ideology into

whites, liberalism is doomed because so

many non-whites are not receptive to

education of any kind beyond the merest


It is impossible to

get them to care about such abstractions

as property rights or democratic citizenship.

They do not see much further than

the fact that you live in a big house and

“we in da pro-jek.” Of course, there are a

few loutish whites who will never think

past their next meal and a few sensitive

blacks for whom anything is possible,

but no society takes on the characteristics

of its exceptions.

Once I asked my students, “What do

you think of the Constitution?”

“It white,” one slouching black rang

out. The class began to laugh. And I

caught myself laughing along with them,

laughing while Pompeii’s volcano simmers,

while the barbarians swell around

the Palatine, while the country I love,

and the job I love, and the community I

love become dimmer by the day.

I read a book by an expatriate Rhodesian

who visited Zimbabwe not

too many years ago. Traveling with a

companion, she stopped at a store along

the highway. A black man materialized

next to her car window. “Job, boss, (I)

work good, boss,” he pleaded. “You

give job.”

“What happened to your old job?”

the expatriate white asked. The man replied in the straightforward

manner of his race: “We drove

out the whites. No more jobs. You give


At some level, my students understand

the same thing. One day I asked

the bored, black faces staring back

at me. “What would happen if all the

white people in America disappeared


“We screwed,” a young, pitch-black

boy screamed back. The rest of the

blacks laughed.

I have had children tell me to my face

as they struggled with an assignment. “I

cain’t do dis,” Mr. Jackson. “I black.”

The point is that human beings are not

always rational. It is in the black man’s

interest to have whites in Zimbabwe but

he drives them out and starves. Most

whites do not think black Americans

could ever do anything so irrational.

They see blacks on television smiling,

fighting evil whites, embodying

white values. But the real black is not

on television, and you pull your purse

closer when you see him, and you lock

the car doors when he swaggers by

with his pants hanging down almost to

his knees.

I have been in parent-teacher conferences

that broke my heart: the child

pleading with his parents to take him

out of school; the parents convinced

their child’s fears are groundless. If you

love your child, show her you care—

not by giving her fancy vacations or a

car, but making her innocent years safe

and happy. Give her the gift of a not-heavily black


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